August 2014


The Noble Elephant
August 2014




Nedungamuwa Raja with Wilson Koddithuwakku, chief mahout. Wilson has been with the elephant since the day it arrived at the Nedungamuwa estate, feeding, exercising, training and bathing him

The story of the magnificent Nedungamuwa Raja who will bear the karanduwa at the Kandy Esala perahera this year.


Words Daleena Samara Photography Rasika Surasena


Raja was on his way to his bath when he and Dharmavijaya Veda Ralahamy first set 
eyes on each other. 
The elderly native physician, accompanied by his son, stopped in his tracks and observed him with delight. The two men had travelled from Nedungamuwa to the timber factory in Horana in southwest Sri Lanka, where the majestic 25-year-old atha (tusker) toiled daily, shifting heavy logs. In a well-earned break, the animal was setting out to do something more leisurely-wallow in cool river waters. Business at the timber factory was down, and his owner had put him up for sale.


Dr Dharmavijaya and his son were interested in purchasing the elephant. The encounter was a defining moment. The doctor declared that the accidental meeting was auspicious, 
the hand of destiny. Thus Raja changed owners. The year was 1978 when he moved to his new home, the grounds of the physician's estate in Nedungamuwa in the Western Province of Sri Lanka to lead a life befitting an elephant of such remarkable stature.


There the doctor and beast came to know each other. He noted that Raja belonged to the lofty Sadhantha kula, (one of ten castes of the Asian elephant, grouped according to their physical characteristics.)  Sadhantha elephants are deemed a noble breed, being of exceptional height and girth, bigger and mightier than other Asian elephant casts. Towering ten and a half feet, the young elephant was a giant among giants, taller than the average Sadhantha male. His tusks were extraordinarily long and crossed, also a mark of distinction.


 For his size, Rajah was exceptionally calm-on a rare display of displeasure or unease he would simply refuse to budge. After a heavy load of work, 
he would rest. He resisted confined spaces like travelling in the back of a lorry or in a train but was ever willing to walk a long distance, possibly following the instinctive call of his ancestors who would have walked the jungle's length and breadth. Vehicles alarmed him, and if he saw a car approach, he would freeze up, and so he would only walk on roads at times when there was little or no traffic.  


Most importantly, he displayed the hathpolaya (the seven extremities-legs, trunk, tail and extruded male organ-touch the ground when he is standing), markers of elephant greatness that made him suitable for sacred ceremonial duties. He held his head high, not bowed like other elephants, and his back was broad and flat. The good doctor dedicated the beast to religious and cultural activities, and rest.


Thus a new page turned in Raja's life. Now a native of Nedungamuwa, he became Nedungamuwa Raja, or the King of Nedungamuwa. He also met Wilson Kodhithuwakku, the wiry chief mahout tasked with caring for him, 
who is by his side daily even today. 


Raja was born in 1954, not in 
Sri Lanka but in the stables of a maharajah in Mysore, India. He was one of two baby elephants gifted to a physician monk from the Nilammahara Temple in Piliyandala, Sri Lanka, who had travelled to the maharajah's estates to heal the ailing aristocrat. The two young elephants were shipped to Sri Lanka. When the monk could no longer afford to keep the two animals, they were sold, and Raja ended up at the timber factory, perhaps to repay an ancient karmic debt.


Senior Dr Dharmavijaya doted on his elephant. When he passed away, his son, Dr Harsha Dharmavijaya, inherited the animal. Like his father, Harsha is a native physician of people, but is also skilled in elephant vedakam, indigenous medicine for elephants. Raja is in good hands.


Raja is one of the family, says Harsha. His diet is carefully monitored to ensure it is balanced and strengthening. It varies from day to day-if he has coconut leaves on Monday, it would be kos (jak fruit) on Tuesday, bo leaves on Wednesday and banana trunks the day after. Just a 350kg helping a day is a reasonable share for a big guy. There are fruits too-bananas, mangoes and his favourite, pineapples, and the occasional treat of jaggery. And there are baths every other day... a three-kilometre walk to the river takes an hour, accompanied by Wilson, assistant mahout Indika Jayasinghe, and a few others. Raja soaks for as long as five hours, lolling around almost underwater except for the tip of his trunk. On his way to and from the bath, he willingly stops for treats from the townsfolk who pop tasty tidbits right into his mouth.


When he isn't resting, Raja participates in peraheras, colourful religious processions, most often 
bearing the temple's sacred relics. 
He has received special training for the role. For many years now, he has carried the karanduwa, casket enshrining the sacred relic of the Buddha, for many of the island's major peraheras, such as the Bellanwila, Pitta Kotte and Nawagamuwa peraheras. Strangely, he loses his fear of noise and crowds on these occasions.


The year 2005 marked his crowning glory, when Raja was assigned the honour of being the central tusker carrying the karanduwa bearing the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha at the Kandy Esala perahera, the Island's most important and spectacular perahera featuring over 100 elephants, dancers and drummers. He has carried out this task regularly ever since, and will do it once again this year.  


His patience in the role is legendary. They say that Nadungamuwa Raja, despite his preference for quietude, 
is not deterred by the incessant drums and flutes, the fire and dancing, and the noise and crowds of the event. They say he stands very still while he is draped in his ceremonial embroidered hattaya (jacket), 
honda wesma (trunk cover) and his wesuma (head cover), kan wesuma (ear whisks), gigiri walalu (anklets) and bells, and electric lights draped around them. A total of 180 knots are required to secure the dress onto his body and the karanduwa is then secured atop the flat of his back. They say he will not budge until every knot has been tied correctly. There is a story of the time when in procession he was zapped by an electrical fault in the lighting on his costume. Instead of panicking, the animal stopped in its tracks and stood very still until a technician fixed the problem.

The late Raja was exemplary and Nedungamuwa Raja with his stature, poise and dignity is a fitting successor
There is also a tale of his irritation from an incident at the Bellanwila perahera. Raja, carrying the karanduwa, was flanked by Vasana, the tusker from the Kataragama temple, and another young bull. Vasana moved ahead of him once in the procession and was brought to line by his mahout.  However, when the young male attempted to speed the second time, Rajah attempted to reprimand him with a swing of his trunk. Unfortunately, instead of striking Vasana, he struck and toppled a parked trishaw nearby.  


A predecessor in the role in Kandy, the Maligawa Raja, a magnificent and beloved tusker, died in 1988. Various replacements, including Raja the Younger, acquired from Thailand, 
and Indie Raja from India are learning to perform his duties, but they are still relatively young. The late Raja was exemplary and Nedungamuwa Raja with his stature, poise and dignity is a fitting successor.


This year too, Nedungamuwa Raja will carry the karanduwa in the Kandy Esala perahera. At the time of writing, he was preparing for his trek to Kandy, 85 kilometres uphill. He will be accompanied by Wilson, Indika and five others. It would take them about seven days to reach the Dalada Maligawa. 
They would leave Nedungamuwa at dawn, to the blessed chanting of seth pirith for a safe journey. They would break journey daily at around ten in the morning, at a temple along the way, where Raja will unwind with a soak in a nearby stream.


Dr Harsha recalls the day he first met the elephant and the delight his father showed. He has never looked back, for this elephant is a blessing, and his participation in the Kandy Esala perahera a great joy and honour.

 

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    Dr Harsha Dharmavijaya, who owns Nedungamuwa Raja, loves the animal dearly and says it is part of his family

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    Wilson applies herbal medicine to a bruise on Nedungamuwa Raja, caused by sleeping on one side. Having an elephant doctor as an owner is fortunate

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    Bath time includes a soothing scrub administered by Wilson and Indika

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    Bath time includes a soothing scrub administered by Wilson and Indika

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    How can an elephant resist a delicious snack of jak fruit?

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    Nedungamuwa Raja dressed and ready for the Kandy Esala perahera. His unusual physical characteristics and calm nature place him among the handful of elephants suitable for the role. (Photography: Chanuka Thiyabarawatta)

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    Skeleton of the Heiyantuduwa Raja at Colombo National Museum. This elephant carried the casket of the tooth relic at the Esala perahera for 11 years, from 1989 to 2000, after the death of Maligawa Raja

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    Preserved body of Maligawa Raja at the special museum on the grounds of the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. He was probably the most loved of all temple tuskers, having carried the karanduwa for 30 years, before he died in 1988

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    Brass tusk sheaths worn by Maligawa Raja on display at the museum

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